A play like "Hamilton" is a one-in-a-million sort of production. From the original cast to the costumes and choreography, to the unprecedented word-play and unforgettable lyrics from the mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda, to its cultural significance, "Hamilton" was lightning in a bottle...the stage play of our time and one of the few creations in the history of the stage or cinema that cannot be over-hyped regardless of how much praise is heaped upon it. It really is that good.
But before "Hamilton," there was "In the Heights," the debut production from Miranda that he originally wrote his sophomore year in college back in 1999. The play finally reached Broadway, from 2008 to 2011, scoring 13 Tony nominations (winning four, including Best Original Score for Miranda, the youngest recipient ever to win the category).
Now after a full year of postponements due to COVID-19, the big-screen adaptation of "In the Heights" reaches theaters (it is also available to stream on HBO Max). If you're familiar with "Hamilton," you know that "In the Heights" is a lesser overall production...how could it not be? But on its own it's a rich celebration of the immigrant experience in America, and one of the most joyous, unapologetic and optimistic films in quite some time.
"In the Heights" is no "Hamilton," but that is just fine.
Original "Hamilton" cast member Anthony Ramos leads a wonderful ensemble of Latin-American actors and actresses, in a film that takes place almost entirely in the Washington Heights neighborhood in a Dominican-populated portion of Upper Manhattan, New York City. His character has the oddest of names - "Usnavi" - a name given to him by his immigrant father when he saw it on the side of a vessel in Ellis Island (the ship read "U.S. Navy"). The name itself is representative of something bigger: America as the "melting pot" of the modern world, immigrants can find freedom in putting their own spin on things, while remaining fully proud American citizens. As we see in "In the Heights," roots run deep, and the community itself is one of the stand-out characters in the story.
Usnavi's tale supplies the structure of the film, where he is regaling his origin story to a group of content children who hang on his every word (if the film's optimism ever approaches implausible, it's in the notion that children are capable of sitting and listening to oral stories).
Over the course of three hot, sweaty days, the community survives what's thrown at them, including a black-out that wipes out the entire power grid on the island. Individually, the characters deal with love, their place in the world, and the idea of how chasing one's dream doesn't always require physical distance. Speaking of dreaming, one tweak from the play includes a sub-plot involving Usnavi's younger brother-figure, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), a Dreamer whose life might be up-ended, which fully places this version in current times.
Jimmy Smits plays a first-generation immigrant who is faced with selling everything he owns, including the store he built, so that his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace) can "rise up" from the Heights and finish her degree at Stanford. Nina though, is beginning to see that what she wants may be right there in the Heights, just as Usnavi crosses paths with her, desperately seeking a way out.
The story jumps around from generation to generation, and the matriarch of the neighborhood, Abuela (Olga Merediz), is perhaps the film's most memorable character. An old woman who never was able to have children of her own, she became the adopted mother of the entire Heights, and she's given the movie's best musical number.
Speaking of the music, the whole track is fun, hip and springy, but for those that have seen or listened to "Hamilton" you'll probably find it feeling a bit "unpolished" upon comparison (again, it's impossible NOT to compare Miranda's two plays, which clearly creates problems for "In the Heights" to be seen as anything other than "lesser"). Unlike "Hamilton," I was not able to recall a single song after seeing the film, although during the movie, my toes never stopped tapping. There's also a great dreamy sequence where the characters played by Corey Hawkins and Melissa Barrera dance up the side of a Manhattan apartment building...it might come as no surprise to find out that director Jon M. Chu was highly influenced by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a film where the laws of gravity were similarly discarded.
Many are saying that "In the Heights" is the perfect film for audiences to return to theaters for...I'd agree with that sentiment. But it's experimental in that it is one of the first big-Summer blockbusters that will also be available the same day on HBO Max, plus it isn't an existing intellectual-property...it remains to be seen how this might affect its reception. In a different time and place, "In the Heights" might be one of those "word of mouth" hits, a movie that would become more and more popular the more people heard about it, and a film that would almost inevitably benefit from repeat theatrical viewing...it might instead become a critical darling, one that is championed by those that have seen it, even if those people are few and far between.
It has other issues (Lin-Manuel Miranda himself appears as a sort of cheesy wink to the audience, and the film itself could have been shortened), but "In the Heights" is engaging, entertaining and important...three qualities that you won't often find meshed together in the same film. This is a story as American as apple pie, but with a bit of Latin spice providing the kick.
Genre: Musical, Music, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours and 23 minutes.
Based on the musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda ("Hamilton").
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Directed by Jon M. Chu ("Crazy Rich Asians," "Now You See Me 2," "Jem and the Holograms," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation").
"In the Heights" is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
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